Escape to Rostov
By Elizabeth Buchanan
You won’t need your Palm Pilot in Rostov, where the crowds of Moscow melt away in favor of picturesque wooden houses and the divine reverberations of ancient church bells. “Everyone who comes to Rostov says there is a special energy here,” explains local artist Mikhail Selishchev. And he’s right.
After graduating from the prestigious Surikov art institute in Moscow and working as a painter in Vladivostok for many years, Mikhail happened upon Rostov in 1990. He fell in love with the quaint town full of churches and decided to make it his home, settling in a run-down little house on the banks of tranquil Lake Nero. Because Mikhail didn’t have registration or food vouchers for the town, he had to make monthly trips to Moscow for bread, milk, meat and art supplies. Tough as life was in the beginning, he is glad that he stayed, and now owns a pair of wooden houses along the lake — he, his wife and his mother live in one, and the other is his art studio, gallery and a humble bed and breakfast. < /P>
Two hundred kilometers north of Moscow, Rostov Veliky is among the oldest of Russia’s cities, first mentioned in the chronicles in 862. Veliky, which means “great” in Russian, refers not to the town’s size, but to the degree of political and religious authority it held in the past — up until the late 18th century Rostov was one of the richest towns in Russia and an important spiritual center.
And although Rostov has suffered its share of fires, lootings, invasions and a devastating tornado in 1953 that destroyed many of the Kremlin’s cupolas and several other historical buildings, these disasters haven’t erased what many of its 34,000 locals describe as the town’s unique “energy” — something they claim sets it apart from its Golden Ring neighbors. “Rostov lightens the soul,” says our taxi driver, solemnly crossing himself as we pass the white stone walls of St. Jacobs monastery. Stand motionless inside the kremlin as the melodies of church bells soar down from the belfry and fill the air with chords of vibration, and you understand what he means. It’s as if you have stepped into a space untouched by war, technology or double-cheeseburgers.
How to Get There
The most pleasant way to reach Rostov is aboard a first-class elektrichka car. These commuter trains depart from Yaroslavsky station every morning at 8:22am and arrive just under three hours later. A first class ticket costs 335 rubles. If you’re traveling by car, take Prospect Mira from the center and continue north on Yaroslavskoe highway. The drive is about two and a half hours.
Where to Stay
If you enjoy awakening to the sound of bells, stay inside the magical kremlin at Dom na Pogrebakh. Clean, basic rooms start at 500 rubles for a double. No private bathrooms. Tel. (08536) 3 12 44. For slightly more comfort, try the newly-built Usadba Pleshanova at 34 Leninskaya Ul. Only double rooms available, ranging from 500 to 1700 rubles. The first floor has an internet salon and breakfast is included. Tel. (08536) 3 74 40 or 3 74 41. Artist Mikhail Selishchev’s Khors Guest House gives you the opportunity to sleep in a real 19th century Russian izba, with two double rooms and a banya out back. Prices from $7 to $10 per person, including breakfast. Follow the white painted footprints from the kremlin gates. Call Mikhail or his wife Stella ahead of time to reserve the house. Tel. (08536) 6 24 83.
Where to Eat
The best meal in town, if you haven’t been invited to dinner with a local family, is the Slavyansky Restaurant. Follow the signs past Gostiny Dvor, in front of the kremlin, to Sovetskaya Ulitsa. Be sure to try the eggplant roulettes, especially tasty when washed down with the local beer. Inside the Kremlin you can get basic fare and a drink at the Trapeznaya restaurant. They serve breakfast too. The Arkada Cafe on Ul. 50-Letiya Oktyabrya is another option for lunch or dinner.
In fact, Rostov is famous for its bells. In the late 17th century the town revolutionized the belfry by redesigning it to house bells horizontally, instead of diagonally. Today, Rostov’s school for bell ringing draws zvonars from all over Russia to learn a skill that almost died out in Soviet times, when ringing of the bells was largely forbidden.
Though we arrive at midday, the center of town is nearly deserted, as if we are the first outsiders to discover it. Just a few hundred yards from the kremlin the blue waters of Lake Nero lap gently against the shore, providing a tranquil backdrop to dozens of ornate churches and the town’s five monasteries.
Rostov is laid out differently than most Russian towns: instead of a grid-plan, several main roads curve outwards from the kremlin in a half-moon formation, with the other streets rushing straight in to meet them. The effect is that most roads either embrace or lead to the Kremlin, giving the town a true center.
It is on one of the charming side streets near St. Jacob’s monastery that we first meet Father Alexander Parfyonov, a statuesque priest with welcoming brown eyes. He makes his way over to us, stopping to bless several people who approach him with recognition and esteem in their eyes: an elderly babushka pushing a decrepit metal cart, a young couple out for a stroll. He beckons us into the monastery, where we are met with the octave voices of a young choir singing from atop one of the bell towers.
When the choir finishes, Father Alexander invites them to sing in the Conception Cathedral, the oldest of the three cathedrals on the monastery’s grounds and still closed to the public until renovation can be afforded. Producing an ancient key from somewhere inside his robe, Father Alexander opens wide the doors of the cathedral and we all file in, our eyes sweeping over centuries-old murals that replace the traditional iconostasis, the tale of Russian Orthodoxy painted directly on the chipped granite walls. The choir fills the church with the melodies of Grecian and Serbian hymns, their voices rising to meet the paintings that stretch high above our heads. When they finish, Father Alexander speaks about the meaning of some of the paintings, delivering with each explanation a message that applies to everyday life. Faces upturned, everyone listens.
Before we leave the monastery to continue our tour of Rostov, we eat lunch with Father Alexander and Father Ignati, a young monastic priest who is part of the St. Jacob’s order. Over potato salad, fish soup and fish cutlets (Orthodox monks don’t eat meat), Father Ignati tells us about life in the monastery. Then we are given a tour of St. Jacob’s farm, sampling ripe vine tomatoes in the greenhouse and still-forming cheese in the creamery. With about 50 chickens, a dozen or so milk cows, a trout pond and a potato combine they repaired themselves, the monks at St. Jacobs are completely self-sufficient.
A short boat ride on Lake Nero takes us back to the center of town, where we alight on the grassy bank near Mikhail Selishchev’s house and art gallery, the Khors House of Art. The wooden house is itself a museum of 19th-century Russian homes, no longer in the dilapidated state Mikhail found it thanks to a major restoration project.
Mikhail’s art is a patchwork of mediums — oil, enamel, stone — melted together to produce stunning pieces that reflect his formal Surikov education but at the same time show that he has stepped out of the box of traditional Russian art. Iridescent enamel in a rainbow of rich colors depicts abstract themes and ideas, framed in beautiful wood that Mikhail finds in and around Rostov. He tells us modestly that Rostov’s beauty has influenced his work. And as we walk up the path through his flower garden, we stop to admire his 360-degree-view of cupolas, monasteries and the blue Lake Nero, and we feel the “special energy” that drew him to Rostov in the first place.
TEN THIGS TO DO IN ROSTOV VELIKY
Tour the kremlin. Looking out over Lake Nero atop a small hill in the town’s center, the Rostov kremlin was constructed by Metropolitan Iono Sysoyevich in the late 1600s. Buy a ticket to the Kremlin at the main gate for 30 rubles. Guided excursions can be arranged at the ticket booth — ask for English-speaking guide Natalia Yesena if your Russian isn’t great.
Try Slavyanskoye beer. Rostov’s Slavyansky restaurant brews its own beer – and it’s not bad! Unfiltered, you have a choice of dark or light brew. Available on tap or bottled at the restaurant, this is the “beer of life,” according to its local promoters.
Take a boat ride on Lake Nero. Rent a canoe or rowboat at the dock near the town’s park, to the north of the kremlin, or simply hire one tethered along the shore of the lake. Price is up for negotiation, but generally a ride in a motorboat costs 50 rubles a person per half-hour. If you wish, alight on the small deserted island in the middle of the lake and have a picnic. The best view of the kremlin is from the water, so ask your boat captain to stop so that you can take some beautiful photographs.
Spend the day with Father Alexander Parfyonov. Jovial, warm and welcoming, Father Alexander Parfyonov is one of the most popular people in Rostov and knows the ins and outs of Rostov’s churches, museums and monasteries. When not presiding over church services or offering an ear to the many Rostovians who know him personally, Father Alexander conducts “insider” tours for visitors. He charges about 100 rubles per hour for Russian-speaking tours. Bring your own interpreter. Tel. 8 903 823 1886, email@example.com.
Walk along the kremlin walls. Climb the narrow stone staircase that winds upwards and stop at the landing to view the serene interior of the church. Continue on to the walls, and from there you have a stunning view of the inside of the kremlin, babushkas sitting on the bench near the water, and Lake Nero filling in the horizon between onion domes and rooftops. A kremlin ticket gains you entrance to the wall walkway.
Visit the Khors House of Art and Enamel Art Gallery. Named after a pagan sun god, this amazing art gallery shows the work of resident artist Mikhail Selishchev. Somewhat of a local celebrity, one room of the gallery is filled with gifts Mikhail has received from Rostov residents over the years. Follow the white footprints leading away from the kremlin. Tel. (08536) 624-83
Shoot a photo collage of the ornately carved izba doors and window frames. They will make a great new wall decoration for your Moscow apartment, Study the collage that hangs in Khors Gallery for inspiration.
Visit Rostov’s 22 churches and cathedrals. The Church of St. John the Theologian on the Ishnya is made completely of timber, and from a distance it resembles a ship.
Listen to the Rostov bells. A tour of the kremlin typically begins with a stop below the west gate’s small belfry to listen to the bells being rung by the kremlin zvonar. The Assumption Cathedral belfry consists of fifteen bells that play rhythmically in different notes. Its largest bell, named “Sysoy,” weighs 32 tons.
Take a master class in enamel art. Mikhail Selishchev holds artist retreats throughout the year, drawing enamel artists and enthusiasts from across Russia, Europe, and North America. Participants often stay in the Khors B&B and take daily art lessons and cultural excursions. Cost for the ten-day course, including food and accommodation, is about $115. More details at http://artgallery.by.ru.